By Lidia Yuknavitch
Lately people close to me have been asking me “how it feels.” They are asking me that because on April 1st my memoir (or anti-memoir), The Chronology of Water, will be released from Hawthorne Books. They assume I think, because they care about me and they are wonderful people, that I am happy. Excited. That kind of thing.
Of course I am happy…and I am excited. And I feel lucky as all get out. You have no idea. But I’m something else, too.
I kinda feel like my vagina is on my head, for one thing, because writing a memoir absolutely turns you inside out. Literarlly.
And the other thing is, that NYT article by Neil Genzlinger kinda creeped me out.
Contrary to what Genzlinger wrote about memoirs and memoir writers in “The Problem With Memoir” (New York Times), I didn’t write this book to self glorify. I didn’t write this book to magnify my suffering and blow my puny life up to cinematic proportions. I didn’t write it to get at the me of ME. I didn’t write it to overshare or facehooker my self, to step into the confessional mode. I didn’t even write this kind of book because I am a masochist (though I am a masochist of sorts), or because I’m a sadist, either.
I wrote it because once I read a book by Kathy Acker that helped me feel less alone, less like a freak, a fuck up, a know-nothing chump blonde. Her book, Blood and Guts in High School, for whatever reasons, made me feel seen. Counted. Part of something cool larger than myself. The book was not a memoir. But if you knew Kathy, and I did, and you read her work, which I have, you might say that every book she ever wrote was a memoir, but the market couldn’t handle calling them that. And yet I believe all of her books were both personal and cultural memoirs.
So I set out to write a book that could maybe reach someone the way that book reached me. If even ONE person felt named, present, less puny, then it was worth it. If ONE person could steal a line for courage to get on with their life, it was worth it. Because some of the people I was close to in my life have killed themselves.
Is that a lame reason to write a memoir?
I wrote the book as a love letter to people who might need one. Damaged people. People who have suffered. People who just never fit in. People who find weird things, beautiful. People who are different. You know, ordinary people. For them I turned inside out: vagina head.
I have a confession to make as an ex-catholic though. When I first read the NYT guy’s article? I kind of agreed with him. I thought, hell yeah. Get in line. Enough with the “Anybody can write a memoir, even child stars. Even Snookie.” Fuck that. Posers.
But you know what? The more I though about it, the more I thought wait a minute. The specific items he delineates as objectionable? They are, if you look deep enough under the cover of his words, boneheaded.
I know. Problematic to call that guy out as a bonehead.
Here is Neil Genzlinger’s official list of complaints/advice:
1. That you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir.
2. No one wants to relive your misery.
3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.
4. If you must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.
The hard part about writing like mine and writing by other women or LGBT people or people of color that manages to make it to MEMOIRLAND is something the NYT guy seems to have missed entirely. Or at least misread. Writing this way hurts. I’m not talking about the cliché Oprah heart on your sleeve kind of writing that is mass marketed. I’m talking about writing that takes a reader places inside themselves where shadows live. I’m reminded of a line by Kathy Acker in Empire of the Senseless: “Every time I talk to one of you, I feel like I’m taking layers of my own epidermis, which are layers of still freshly bloody scar tissue, black brown and red, and tearing each one of them off so more and more of my blood shoots into your face. This is what writing is to me a woman.”
But it’s not the hurt that is the main point. It’s just the ordinary, human crucible we all pass through.
I honestly can’t believe I have to say this after everything we’ve all been through in my lifetime, but for a woman, or an LGBT person, or a person of color? Writing the personal IS the larger story. One needn’t write on topics larger than a body or a life to signify. To claim the body away from the lie is already the story.
Writing what really happened to you in your life without drifting away from the corporeal—and by that I mean your ACTUAL body, not a fictionalized or idealized or symbolic one–fucks you up. I had nightmares. I drank a lot. I upped my pharmaceutical intake. I didn’t sleep. I went for long walks and talked to twigs and dirt and plantlife and rivers. I cried oceans.
No, more than that.
It wasn’t just confronting the demons in my past. It wasn’t just diving into the wreck. It wasn’t just the effort it takes to compost shit into beauty. It wasn’t even the fact that I have modest skill at turning a phrase when the swimming pool is filled with language.
It was claiming the literary space and breaking its rules without apology. From the point of view of the body. Standing up.
I guess you could say I just didn’t write the memoir NYT dude is hoping for. But that is not ground for dismissal. For me or anyone. And if this is a genre where women, or gay people, or people of color can get a foot in the door, then I say jam that foot inside—we don’t need LESS stories about their lives, we need MORE.
If we had more stories about these actual bodies and experiences? Maybe we could combat the cultural narratives that lead us to depression, eating disorders, self-loathing, self-destruction, drug and alcohol addiction, and false consciousness. Maybe it would become clearer to the socius what’s wrong with the cultural scripts we’re handed.
For a woman, or an LBGT person, or a person of color to move BEYOND the culturally sanctioned “confessional mode” and into a territory of writing that expresses a corporeal and psychic truth that may make her look ugly, or unlikeable, or pained, or beautiful in terms that have nothing to do with the culture’s definitions of beauty–and to have that piece of expression SELL? It’s a big fucking deal, dude.
When I was in my twenties I considered my life to be extraordinary. It was not because my life was extraordinary. It was because I was in my twenties.
Now that I am nearly fifty, I consider my life to be ordinary. Now is when I have chosen to write a memoir. Not because I am among those listed in NYT guy’s pantheon: “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”
An unremarkable life is not without signification. An ordinary life touches other ordinary lives in ways that are extraordinary. I understand that suffering is a river that moves through us all at times. You can’t win a suffering race. It happens in big and small ways to everyone. This is something I learned from regular people in my life. With suffering? There’s just suffering.
I understand joy and incomparable beauty and tenderness can happen in the smallest of moments. Many people miss it in fact. I’m not setting myself apart by writing this story, I’m setting myself among others. Other mothers other drinkers other lovers other failures other sufferings other joys other bodies other angers other quiet lives that go on and then they don’t, because that’s what lives do.
To be honest, I consider NYT dude’s lofty literary desires to be part of a world we no longer live in. I live in this world. There is a war a week in this world. War the serial. There are shiny celebrity stories of minor note shoved up against tragic epic stories as big as earthquakes and genocides, both flashing across screens with equal weight in sound bites on the nightly news. John Stewart may be the great satirist of our time. And the major features of our shared lived experience—the things that have begun to democratize and level us all—are weird. Things like: speed. Things like: fragmentation. Displacement. Disorientation…the splitting of “self” into necessary multiple identities.
I shaped my book—formally and thematically–out of that kind of shared, common, ordinary experience of the world. An experience that does not fit the old model of memoir NYT guy describes.
In my twenties it would have been a clusterfucked mistake to write a memoir. Also in my thirties. The only reason I ventured into it in my soon to be fifties is that I felt I’d earned the right to open my mouth…it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.
So the only place where I tend to agree with Mr. NYT is that you do need some years. But not for any weird ageist reasons. I know people who have lived lifetimes before they hit puberty. I think the good reason to wait? Is about writing. Wait for the crouch of dreams to come alive in your fingers. Wait for the ability to swim in language rather than pretend to command it. Wait for what you think of as your voice, your style, to find you, rather than you pretending you found it. It will come. As sure as a body.
Oh and news flash for Mr. NYT: any time a woman, an LBGT person, or a person of color writes, the personal IS political. The body is an ontological and epistemological site, like I keep insisting to anyone who will listen.
For the record? My three favorite memoirs to date? The elegy NOX by Anne Carson, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa, each of which open up the body and the psychic space of grief and survival up in ways you can’t explain through consumer culture magical market language. You have to hold them in your hands to know.
And maybe that’s what’s last best about memoirs. Just the ordinary act of holding them in your hands and reading how you are not, and you never will be, alone.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her work has appeared in Ms., The Iowa Review, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Fiction International, Zyzzyva, and elsewhere. Her book Real to Reel was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and she is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Poets and Writers and Literary Arts, Inc. Her work appears in the anthologies Life As We Show It (City Lights), Forms At War (FC2), Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil). She teaches writing, literature, film, and Women’s Studies in Oregon. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.